Natchitoches, Louisiana: Glimpses from History

Founded in 1714 – four years before New Orleans – the city of Natchitoches, Louisiana is the oldest permanent settlement located within the area covered by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The settlement was named after a local Native American tribe that is part of the Caddo Confederacy. As for how to pronounce Natchitoches, though locals now say “Nakadish,” in the 19th century people said “Nakitosh” and often spelled it that way.

Replica buildings at Fort St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site in Natchitoches, Louisiana

Replica buildings at Fort St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site in Natchitoches, Louisiana

Principal place of an excellent and delightful province

In 1713, Louis Juchereau de Saint-Denis, a French-Canadian soldier and explorer, was commissioned by the governor of Louisiana (then part of New France) to open a trading route to New Spain (Mexico). The following year Saint-Denis founded the trading post of Fort Saint Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches on an island in the Red River. French settlers initially established themselves on the east bank of the river. In 1735, St. Denis moved the fort to the west bank. Other settlers followed.

From the beginning, relations between the residents of Natchitoches and those of nearby Texas (then part of New Spain) were close. Trade with Indian tribes, particularly the Caddos, dominated the local economy. Natchitoches supplied the rest of Louisiana with horses and cattle, most of which had been stolen from Spanish ranches by Comanches or other Indians.

In 1762, Spain acquired Louisiana from France. Spain continued to administer the territory even after it was secretly transferred back to France in 1800. Spanish officials encouraged the cultivation of tobacco, which had already become the main commercial crop around Natchitoches. The town grew accordingly. When the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803, Natchitoches had 1,848 inhabitants, of which over half (948) were slaves. (1) In 1804, French physician Paul Alliot described Natchitoches as follows:

It is the principal place of an excellent and delightful province. It is the abode of five hundred inhabitants, while a thousand others others dwell in the country [round about]. It is the residence of a priest and a district commander who renders zealous and paternal justice to all persons claiming it. The trade of a portion of the inhabitants of the city consists in pelts, cattle, hogs, and cheese; while the other portion is engaged in the chase. Numbers of bears, roe deer, red deer and other fallow deer which live in the woods and in those vast and beautiful prairies, form a powerful attraction for these hunters, who gather all told more than twenty thousand skins in three or four months – which gives each one net fifteen or sixteen hundred francs. The flesh of all those animals remains where they have been skinned and becomes food for birds of prey and other carnivorous beasts. When those hunters depart [for the chase], fifteen of them form a party and choose one of their number to look after their eating. That man has an equal share with the others in the skins of the animals.

The inhabitants in the country engage especially in the culture of the tobacco so famed for its good taste…. The other products raised there by these inhabitants prove equally well by their abundant yield the richness of its soil. The forests are filled with excellent vines, which yield muscats and other delicious grapes of various colors, wild fruits, wax plants, honey bees, mulberry trees (on the leaves of which are found cocoons in which are enclosed the eggs of the silkworm), wild olives, and a number of other fruit trees. The hills there are seen to be filled with walnut trees of huge growth, with magnificent chestnuts, whose fruit is indeed, very small, but of an excellent taste, with beautiful pecan trees which produce a kind of acorn whose fruit is good, sweet, and delicate. If those inhabitants were industrious, they could make excellent eating oils from the fruit of the nuts and the pecans. But…inhabitants who work in the fields are not susceptible to any innovation. (2)

According to Alliot, residents traded with the Caddo, Cocinthés and Panis Indian tribes. The Indians exchanged animal pelts for guns, gunpowder, vermilion, taffia (rum) and jewelry.

A map of Louisiana in 1763, showing the location of Natchitoches

A map of Louisiana in 1763, showing the location of Natchitoches

A very thriving village

In early 1804, the Americans established Fort Claiborne to replace Fort Saint Jean Baptiste. A description of the town published in 1816 observed:

The town of Natchitoches stands upon the right bank of Red River…a very thriving village, consisting of about one hundred and fifty houses. Fort Claiborne occupies a pine hill behind the town. Here is the seat of the Indian agency for the N.W. savages. The settlements on the alluvion are upon the banks of the streams, but in the pine woods, are scattered over the country. The common time necessary to make a voyage from Natchitoches to and from New Orleans is from thirty to forty days. (3)

Indian interpreter Gaspard Philibert lived in Natchitoches. His boss, Indian Agent Dr. John Sibley, wrote:

The water of the Red River is so salt that, wherever it is stagnant, large cockles, clams, shrimps, &c, resembling those on the sea-coast, are found in plenty. At Natchitoches, lime made of cockle shells is plenty, and used altogether, though limestone exists in abundance. Lime made of shells is sold at twenty-five cents a bushel, and a common labourer’s wages is seventy-five cents a day. I have never seen on Red River any fever of the putrid bilious infectious kind, none worse than an intermittent, or remittent, that six or eight doses of bark a day, for three or four days, after proper evacuations, would [not] cure; though I have found often such a degree of debility, that blistering, and the diffusive stimulus, was necessary…. At Natchitoches there are several instances of longevity. There is a German that has been here fifty years, who is now ninety-five years old, in good health, labours constantly, and can walk thirty miles a day, several who were born here of between eighty and eighty-five, and upwards of twenty above seventy…. Sugar cane grows pretty well here, and sour oranges. (4)

In 1819, the garrison at Natchitoches moved to Fort Selden, six miles north, and Fort Claiborne was demolished. In 1822, Fort Selden was closed and the garrison moved to a new fort, Cantonment Jesup, 25 miles west of Natchitoches, under the command of Colonel James B. Many. It had the dual mission of protecting frontier settlers against slave revolts and guarding against incursions from newly-independent Mexico.

The Mexicans – like the Spaniards before them – were worried about incursions from the opposite direction. Natchitoches was a staging ground for filibustering expeditions to Texas, and for Anglo-American colonists going to settle in Texas without permission. The Mexicans also wanted the residents of Natchitoches to stop their illicit dealings with Texas Indians. The American practice of buying stolen horses encouraged Indians to raid Texas settlements. In 1821 a citizen of San Antonio complained that

the Traders of Natchitoches have been long since in the practice of introducing among the savage nations arms of good quality. Double barrel guns, good lances and a great quantity of ammunition. Last year only, the amount of arms thus disposed of amounted to over $90,000, and the whole supplied by the merchants of Natchitoches and New Orleans. Further, the Spanish and American traders used to remain eight and even ten months among the Indians, and there is positive information that they go to plunder and murder the Spaniards jointly with the Indians. (5)

The resort of desperate, wicked and strange creatures

American clergyman Timothy Flint provides an impression of what Natchitoches was like in the early 1820s, which is when Napoleon fictionally sets up camp there in Napoleon in America. At the time, Natchitoches was the largest settlement in Louisiana west of the Mississippi.

The village is compact…and composed of Spanish, French, and American houses, and a population composed of these races together, with a considerable mixture of Indian blood. There are many respectable families here, and a weekly newspaper in French and English. From its position, this must be a great inland town. At the head of steam-boat navigation, the last town westward towards the Spanish frontier, and on the great road to that country and to Mexico, it has already a profitable trade with that country. The Spanish come there for their supplies, as far as from the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande]. They pay in bars of silver and mules. I have seen droves pass of four hundred horses and mules….

Being, as they phrase it, the ‘jumping off place,’ it is necessarily the resort of desperate, wicked and strange creatures who wish to fly away from poverty, infamy and the laws, and those who have one, from conscience. If I were to enter into any kind of detail of the singular scenes that have been witnessed here, under the different regimes, Spanish, French, and American, in its different stages of a pastoral, hunting, and commercial existence; and from the period when its navigation was conducted in canoes, hollowed from trees, to the stately steam-boat; if I could describe its Indian powwows, its Spanish fandangos, its French balls and its American frolics, the different epaulets of the Spanish, French, and American officers, and the character, costume, and deportment of the mottled damsels that attended them, I must be the “great Unknown” to do it, and I must have ten volumes for elbow. Pity, that all this interesting matter should be lost, for want of a historian. I wandered to its ancient grave-yard, and experienced indescribable emotions in trying to retrace mouldering monuments, where the inscriptions were originally coarse and are now illegible, where Spanish, French, Americans, Indians, Catholics and Protestants lie in mingled confusion.

I passed two weeks here, receiving daily invitations to entertainments by the hospitable citizens of this place. The luxury of the table is understood and practiced in great perfection. I was charmed with the singing and playing of two young ladies in this place, the one Spanish, the other American. (6)

Fort St. Jean Baptiste has been reconstructed as a state historic site in Natchitoches.

You might also enjoy:

Frontier Colonel James B. Many

Indian Interpreter Gaspard Philibert

Caddo Indian Chief Dehahuit

Soldier, lothario, filibuster: General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert

Texas Priest Francisco Maynes

Napoleon & New Orleans in 1821

Canada and the Louisiana Purchase

  1. Sophie Burton and F. Todd Smith, Colonial Natchitoches: A Creole Community on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier (College Station, TX, 2008), p. 18.
  2. Paul Alliot, “Historical and Political Reflections,” in Louisiana Under the Rule of Spain, France, and the United States 1785-1807, translated and edited by James A. Robertson, Vol. I (Cleveland, 1911), pp. 125-129.
  3. William Darby, Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana (Philadelphia, 1816), p. 211.
  4. John Sibley, “An Account of the Country and Productions near the Red River in Louisiana,” The Literary Magazine and American Register, Vol. VI (Philadelphia, 1806), p. 173.
  5. Joseph Carl McElhannon, “Imperial Mexico and Texas, 1821-1823,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2 (October 1949), p. 125.
  6. Timothy Flint, Recollections of the Last Ten Years Passed in Occasional Residences and Journeyings in the Valley of the Mississippi (Boston, 1826), pp. 365-367.

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If I could describe its Indian powwows, its Spanish fandangos, its French balls and its American frolics, the different epaulets of the Spanish, French, and American officers, and the character, costume, and deportment of the mottled damsels that attended them, I must...have ten volumes for elbow.

Timothy Flint